The bells are ringing again, and children all around the country are heading back to school following a particularly unique Summer. With the introduction of vaccines for everyone aged 6 months or older (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022), it may be the first time in two years, or in their lives entirely, that our children are going back to an in-person learning environment. The effects of the COVID pandemic still reverberate throughout the fabric of our society, thus it is not surprising that the prevalence of anxiety in youth has increased significantly in the last two years (World Health Organization, 2022). This has led to ongoing difficulties as school resumes. If back-to-school anxiety becomes too overwhelming for a child, its management threatens to become the focus of their day, overshadowing academic or social activities.
Back-to-school anxiety has been increasing rapidly by potential layers of trauma, ranging from grief and loss to inconsistency and unreliability in the routines and social systems we trusted for so long. As the nature of back-to-school anxiety has shifted, so has our ability to recognize it. Different triggers and identifiers call for different strategies to help aid our children. Symptoms related to normative developmental processes of adolescence, such as peer relationships, body image issues, and self-image, are magnified by increased social interaction and the increased (but ever-present) impact of social media (Roeske, 2022).
Signs of Back-to-School Anxiety
- Multiple reports of not wanting to get up or go to school. This is most recognizable when there are no physical complaints. A sign which may be more familiar to parents is complaints of a medical nature despite no medical ailment. Examples of this may include phantom headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue (Burch, 2018). It is always important to first check the validity of these claims by seeking guidance from a medical professional.
- Continually asking for reassurance. Children may begin repeating worried questions or statements despite receiving an answer (e.g., “What if no one sits with me at lunch?”), or avoiding after school activities. This does not mean that answering your childrens’ questions is wrong, but this is a common way children may express themselves when anxious.
- Changes in sleep patterns including changes in falling or staying asleep may be an indicator of anxiety for school the following day (Burch, 2018). Children may often report to parents and caregivers that they do not want to go to school, so it is important to notice whether these requests correspond with changes in their sleep pattern, including wishing to stay up later or remain sleeping the following day.
5 Strategies to Help with Back-to-School Anxiety
- Practice school routines in order to ensure your child gets enough sleep can be implemented as soon as warning signs are observed. An example of a school routine may be: wake up, eat breakfast, pack appropriate school bag, and get ready to travel to school.
- Shift from a “Summer schedule” to a more appropriate school schedule in order to aid in both proper sleeping habits as well as school routines. Beginning with small incremental steps (e.g., 10-minute increments) in order to ready children for a proper school schedule is another strategy that can be employed regardless of a child’s propensity toward back-to-school anxiety.
- Approach anxiety directly and allow your child to express their feelings of anxiety. Approaching these feelings with a strong disposition can help your child in realizing their feelings are more common than they may assume. Caretakers are often the most important models for feelings and behavior, so modelling a calm and accepting attitude offers children a positive avenue for expressing their anxious behavior and remaining open to change (Burch, 2018).
- Offer strong reinforcement when your child does well (e.g., “You were so brave today!”). Try not to mirror their levels of anxiety. Attention and praise to any “brave” behaviors helps to strengthen these behaviors and help your child build upon them (Burch, 2018).
- Consider seeking family therapy in order to help identify and implement the tools described above. As we all continue to maneuver a return to in-person activities and what can or cannot yet be re-introduced into our lives, a nuanced approach to anxiety is needed, specifically when this anxiety is possibly brought about by observable or latent trauma due to the last 2+ years. If you relate to pieces of this article, or know a parent who does, speaking and working directly with a trauma-informed specialist can help demystify and apply these tools in a way that best fits your personal perspective and lifestyle. Our team at STEPS is always available to help, please contact us at 631-301-4888 for more information, or visit our website at traumaprofessionals.com
Burch, J. M. (2018, August 23). Back to school anxiety. Harvard Health. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/back-to-school-anxiety-2018082314617
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, June 30). Covid-19 vaccination for children. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/planning/children.html#covid19-vax-recommendations.
Roeske, D. (2022, July 29). Why back-to-school anxiety is so much worse now, and 5 ways to Cope. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/creativegroup/newport-healthcare/why-back-to-school-anxiety-is-so-much-worse-now-and-5-ways-to-cope/
World Health Organization. (2022, March 2). Covid-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide?utm_source=washingtonpost&utm_medium=referral